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Greg R. Falconi v. Michael J. Astrue

November 1, 2012

GREG R. FALCONI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John M. Conroy United States Magistrate Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

(Docs. 8, 9)

Plaintiff Greg Falconi brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of the Social Security Act, requesting review and remand of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits for the period from July 1, 1988, his alleged disability onset date, through December 31, 1992, his date last insured. Pending before the Court are Falconi's motion to reverse the Commissioner's decision (Doc. 8), and the Commissioner's motion to affirm the same (Doc. 9). For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS Falconi's motion, DENIES the Commissioner's motion, and REMANDS for further proceedings and a new decision.

Background

Falconi was 27 years old on his alleged disability onset date of July 1, 1988. He has a GED and experience working in the automotive industry. In 1978, Falconi joined the United States Army, attending jungle operations school in Panama and doing reconnaissance in Nicaragua. (AR 626.) At some point within the next two years, he was treated at an army medical clinic in Germany. In January 1980, he was discharged from the military; a letter from the Department of the Army advised that Falconi was being "relieved from active duty . . . by reason of physical disability." (AR 231.)

Falconi has had no family contact since 1992. (AR 627.) He attempted to take college courses starting in January 1994, but withdrew five months later with an incomplete in all classes. (AR 253.) In 1994-1995, Falconi was convicted of burglary and attempted armed robbery. He apparently has an extensive criminal history in Ohio, New York, and Vermont, dating back to approximately 1985. (AR 626.) In 2000, Falconi was released from prison and gained employment in the service department of a Saab dealership. (AR 829.) Within two years, he had lost this job and was reportedly using heroin and exhibiting suicidal ideation. (AR 88.)

Falconi has had a longstanding problem with drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and marijuana; and has been diagnosed with polysubstance abuse. At the administrative hearing, he testified that he has been "drug-free" since approximately 2004 or 2005. (AR 831.) Falconi also has a history of mental health problems, and has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, anxiety disorder, bipolar affective disorder, depression, and suicidal ideation. (See, e.g., AR 86-87, 247, 318, 336-39, 779, 797, 808.) The record reflects that, throughout the 1990s, Falconi overdosed on multiple occasions and attempted to hang himself in jail. (AR 829.)

In approximately 2004,*fn1 Falconi filed applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB), alleging disability beginning on July 1, 1988. (AR 13, 19-20.) The SSI application was adjudged "fully favorable" to Falconi, and he was found eligible to receive SSI beginning in October 2004. (AR 13, 18, 821.) The DIB application, on the other hand, was denied initially and upon reconsideration. In an attachment to his Request for Reconsideration, Falconi stated that his depression and mania were major impairments, disrupting his ability to work. (AR

22.) He also stated that the Army recorded he had a personality disorder and was "unable to maintain acceptable standards." (Id.) On November 10, 2010, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Edward Hoban conducted a hearing on Falconi's disability application.*fn2

(AR 813-39.) Falconi appeared and testified, and was represented by counsel. On February 25, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Falconi was not disabled under the Social Security Act through December 31, 1992, the date last insured. (AR 13-18.) On February 4, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Falconi's request for review of the ALJ's decision, rendering it the final decision of the Commissioner. (AR 4-8.) Having exhausted his administrative remedies, Falconi filed the Complaint in this action on February 27, 2012. (Doc. 3.)

ALJ Decision

The Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate disability claims. See Butts v. Barnhart, 388 F.3d 377, 380-81 (2d Cir. 2004). The first step requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant is presently engaging in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If the claimant is not so engaged, step two requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant has a "severe impairment." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has a severe impairment, the third step requires the ALJ to make a determination as to whether the claimant's impairment "meets or equals" an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 ("the Listings"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). The claimant is presumptively disabled if the impairment meets or equals a listed impairment. Ferraris v. Heckler, 728 F.2d 582, 584 (2d Cir. 1984).

If the claimant is not presumptively disabled, the ALJ is required to determine the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which means the most the claimant can still do despite his or her mental and physical limitations based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 404.1545(a)(1), 416.920(e), 416.945(a)(1). The fourth step requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant's RFC precludes the performance of his or her past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(f), 416.920(f). Finally, at the fifth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can do "any other work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g), 416.920(g). The claimant bears the burden of proving his or her case at steps one through four, Butts, 388 F.3d at 383; and at step five, there is a "limited burden shift to the Commissioner" to "show that there is work in the national economy that the claimant can do," Poupore v. Astrue, 566 F.3d 303, 306 (2d Cir. 2009) (clarifying that the burden shift to the Commissioner at step five is limited, and the Commissioner "need not provide additional evidence of the claimant's [RFC]").

Employing this sequential analysis, ALJ Hoban first determined that Falconi had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from his alleged disability onset date of July 1, 1988 through his date last insured of December 31, 1992. (AR 15.) At step two, the ALJ found that, "[b]ased on the complete lack of evidence pertaining to the relevant period on record," there was no evidence of a medically determinable impairment during the period between Falconi's alleged disability onset date and the date last insured. (AR 17.) Alternatively, the ALJ noted that, even if there was evidence of a severe impairment, a 1995 letter from Falconi's counselor "tend[ed] to indicate that [Falconi's] drug and alcohol abuse would be material ...


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